Friend describes frantic search for Lauren Astley the night she was killed, in trial of Nathaniel Fujita
When Lauren Astley stopped returning text messages on the night of July 3, 2011, her best friend Ariel Chates began to worry. A flurry of texts to their group of friends turned up nothing. So at around 8 p.m., Chates called Astley’s ex-boyfriend, Nathaniel Fujita, at his home.
“I said, ‘Hi, Nate, I know that this is a bit of a long shot, but I was wondering if you had heard or seen Lauren?’” Chates, 20, testified Wednesday in Middlesex Superior Court. “And he said, ‘No, this is the last place she’d ever be.’”
According to prosecutors, Fujita had killed Astley there about an hour earlier.
Fujita, now 20, is accused of luring 18-year-old Astley to his house, telling her to park out of sight and then beating, strangling and slashing her to death in the garage. He is being tried on first-degree murder and other charges.
Prosecutors say he was humiliated after their breakup; Fujita’s lawyer says he was suffering a brief psychotic episode.
Chates testified that before she got off the phone with Fujita that night, she asked him how he was, because she hadn’t seen him in a while.
“He said, ‘I was actually in the middle of watching a movie, you interrupted me, so I have to go,’” Chates testified. Asked how his voice sounded, she replied, “Normal, but rude, which was normal.”
Chates said that she and a friend went out to look for Astley and got a call that her car had been seen at the Wayland town beach. When the two girls arrived and saw the car, they called Astley’s father, Malcolm Astley, and the police.
“The police came within a few minutes,” said Chates. “The police officer, Malcolm and I went down to the beach, and Malcolm ran into the water with a flashlight.”
As Chates spoke, Malcolm Astley leaned forward in his seat in the front row of the courtroom, sobbing quietly.
Astley’s body was found on July 4, 2011, by a birdwatcher out looking for blue heron in a marsh off Water Row in Wayland.
Henry Nields, the state’s chief medical examiner, who conducted the autopsy, testified Wednesday that Astley had been killed by a combination of strangulation and incised wounds to her neck.
First, said Nields, Astley was strangled; the furrow left in her neck matched the bungee cord that investigators found tangled in her hair when they pulled her from the marsh.
Her throat was then slashed repeatedly, leaving a 4 1/2 inch gaping wound surrounded by “a lot” of superficial wounds, Nields said. Asked if he counted them all, he said no.
“There were many incised wounds to the neck,” he said. “In certain areas there were multiple very close, almost parallel incised wounds, suggesting that there might have been a serrated edge to the instrument that was used to inflict the wounds.”
Astley was not instantly incapacitated by her injuries, Nields testified, and even after all of them had been inflicted, it could have taken her minutes to die. Her face and body were covered with bruises, he said.
As Nields testified, Fujita hunched over, his shoulders shaking, and he periodically brought his fists to his eyes.
The jury was given autopsy photographs along with a caution from Judge Peter Lauriat.
“The photographs are not pleasant. Indeed, they may be described as graphic,” he told jurors. “Mr. Fujita is entitled to a verdict based solely on the evidence, and not one based on pity or sympathy for the deceased, which might be occasioned by the photographs themselves.”
Prosecutor Lisa McGovern’s last question to Nields was whether he knew how much pain Astley suffered as a result of her injuries. Fujita's lawyer, William Sullivan, objected and the question was not answered.
Forensic scientist Jennifer Montgomery testified that Astley’s DNA was found on sneakers shoved into a crawl space in Fujita’s bedroom, in a pooled bloodstain in Fujita’s garage, and on the car Fujita allegedly drove to the marsh in Wayland where prosecutors say he dumped her battered body. Her DNA was also found on several items from the Fujita garage, and on a towel recovered from the marsh.
Fujita’s blood was found in the Jeep that Astley was driving the night she was killed, Montgomery said.
Testimony will continue Thursday with Nields, who has not yet been cross-examined. The case is expected to go to the jury next week.
In court on Wednesday, pink rubber bracelets could be seen peeking out from beneath the sleeves of many spectators.
“In Loving Memory of L.D.A.,” they read. “Lauren… you left us breathless.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.